Putting Education on the Chopping Block

Over the past few weeks, President Obama has consistently shared his vision for our nation's economic future while giving remarks about the federal government's fiscal policy. Intense examination of the fiscal year (FY) 2011 budget agreement has been of particular interest and concern to us all, including everyday Americans who wondered about a government shutdown, the future of Medicare, and much more. Yet there's one critical component in the agreement that has not received significant attention: College opportunity for low-income Americans.

While White House officials hammered out a deal with Congress to reach the magical $38.5 billion figure to demonstrate America's fiscal responsibility, the president was hard pressed when drawing a line in the sand to distinguish his administration's position from that of Republicans in terms of simple fairness. He held up fairness as the proper measure by which to judge all policy proposals. No one should ever question fairness because it is an admirable quality. However, my question is: How does one relate fairness -- in terms of financial rectitude or economic efficiency -- to low-income students and their families who lives will forever be changed by the passing of the FY 2011 budget agreement?

The administration has offered up two education efforts with proven success for the chopping block: A set of college opportunity initiatives called TRIO and GEAR UP along with adult education programs. Those of us in higher education are quite perplexed by the president's actions. President Obama has volunteered cuts in his FY 2011 budget agreement that exceeded even those put forth by the majority of Republicans. On one hand, the president points out that his vision for long-term fiscal responsibility is based on "core values," but then he chooses to cut away important efforts that have contributed greatly to America's success. It's a troubling dichotomy, to say the least.

To begin with, the Obama Administration's decisions have harmed the efforts of TRIO and GEAR UP -- with roots that stretch back to the Civil Rights Movement. In crafting college opportunity policy in the last century, Democrats acknowledged that students and families needed more than money; they needed help to overcome other persistent obstacles that hamper students' social mobility. Poor academic preparation, lack of good information, and an adolescent culture that discouraged hard work in the present as prelude to significant payoffs in the future all needed to be addressed. TRIO and GEAR UP grew out of that recognition. Yet the Obama Administration proffered further cuts here, cuts that will result in nearly over 100,000 of the country's most vulnerable students being kicked out of these programs.

Another set of programs up for the taking by the Obama Administration -- and not by the Republicans -- are adult education programs. These grants provide workforce investment, GED preparation, and adult literacy support for approximately 2.3 million low-income adults every year, ranging from high school-age students through older, nontraditional students and English language learners. If these funds do not reach the adult learners in which they were intended to support, a brighter future may not be obtainable for these students who deserve a second chance through education.

In my view, the Obama Administration's offering of TRIO, GEAR UP, and adult education as places to make excessive cuts tells us a great deal about its core values. Primarily, it suggests that high school students and young adults from working-class and poor families have been pushed to the margins of the administration's consciousness. The administration remained steadfast in preserving efforts -- however minimized -- to ensure education reform and to promote early childhood learning. But efforts to support the aspirations of the less affluent for social mobility -- apart from preserving the maximum grant in the Pell Grant program -- were given short shrift.

Before President Obama, his administration, and any other Democrat offers up additional cuts to programs like TRIO, GEAR UP, and adult education, they must ask themselves one crucial question: How fair is it to sacrifice the needs of low-income families striving to achieve a better life for themselves and their children? Indeed, the true test of the integrity of the administration's fiscal approach is not what it proclaims it from the podium, but rather, how it makes it operational in the back room.

Dr. Arnold L. Mitchem is president of the Council for Opportunity in Education, the only national organization dedicated to furthering the expansion of postsecondary opportunities for low-income and first-generation students.